Unlucky worker’s ties to hometown strained, broken, lost

Tilted Axis Press, 168pp. Maruzen price: ¥2,211 plus tax

“Tokyo Ueno Station” by Yu MiriUeno Station, the “Gateway to the North,” was where men from Japan’s northern Tohoku region used to arrive in Tokyo by overnight train, looking for work during the high economic growth period, including the construction boom created by the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games.

“Tokyo Ueno Station” is a novel depicting these everyday people who supported Japan’s economic growth behind the scenes. It also looks at the past and present of the Tohoku region, which suffered the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. The protagonist, Kazu, leaves Fukushima Prefecture for work and eventually ends his days homeless in Ueno. Akutagawa Prize-winning writer Yu Miri, born in 1968, worked on this novel for 12 years from concept to publication.

The story begins with Kazu looking back on his life. “Life is nothing like a story in a book. There may be words, and the pages may be numbered, but there is no plot. There may be an ending, but there is no end.”

Over the years, work kept Kazu away from his hometown except during the Bon festival and year-end holidays. The deaths of his son and wife left him adrift in the capital and then homeless in Ueno Park. Even after death, his soul lingers there. “Worst of all was how unlucky I was. I had no luck,” he laments, making us feel his pain, his ties with his hometown and the importance of his family.

When the author talked with a homeless man in Ueno Park in 2006, the man said, “A person with a house can’t understand the feelings of a homeless person.” His words remained in her heart. Since then, Yu has met many people who lost their homes in the 2011 disaster or were forced to evacuate after the ensuing nuclear plant accident. “I wanted to write a novel to connect the two [kinds of] hardships, just like a hinge,” Yu explained.

After the 2011 earthquake, Yu often visited the disaster-hit area. In 2018 she opened her own bookstore in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, “because in this area many books were washed away by the tsunami.”

Part of the story’s appeal is the way homeless Kazu picks up the voices of various people passing by in Ueno Park. Yu’s way of listening to voices that go unheard in the mainstream media fuels her creativity.

Recently, Yu revived the Seishun Gogatsuto (Adolescent May Party), a theatrical group she founded when she was 18. Yu collaborated with drama club students at Futaba Future High School in Fukushima Prefecture to stage her play “Seibutsuga” (Still life painting) at a theater in Adachi Ward, Tokyo, in March. The most impressive scene was when the actors called out the names of their hometowns, where radioactive contamination and evacuation suddenly changed their lives. “Ms. Yu asked me to say words loudly, as if sending a message to my hometown,” said Yui Sato, one of the students.

In 2020, Tokyo will host the Olympic Games. Like Kazu, many workers are spending time away from their hometowns. What does it mean when people lose ties with their hometowns and families? What does it mean when they continue to live with memories after that? Yu’s questions prompt us to think about the most vulnerable people.

— Etsuo Kono, Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterSpeech

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